Infinite Patience


Time flies. It had been ten years since I first climbed Robson with my father and Peter. We took the long way: driving from Calgary, biking to Kinney Lake, then hiking past Berg Lake all the way to the toe of the Robson Glacier. That whole day, as intermittent rain fell, we got only occasional glimpses of the lower slopes of the mountain. But we put our trust in a good forecast, and we weren’t disappointed as morning dawned clear. Noon on our second day found us in the labyrinth of seracs and crevasses that is the Mousetrap. After much up and down and around, we finally emerged onto the Dome. In spite of the early hour we decided to stop where we were, in deference to the snow streamers flying from the ridge atop the Kain Face. The following morning we were up well before dawn, frontpointing where Conrad Kain had chopped hundreds of steps. The rising sun and a keen wind met us as we crested the ridge. Dropping our overnight packs, we continued the last few hundred metres to the summit. To the north the Mist and Berg Glaciers tumbled into the milky waters of Berg Lake; to the west the gargoyles on the Emperor Ridge marched off in a ragged file; and to the south the highway beckoned far below. And then down it was, across the Roof and toward the Schwarz Ledges of ill renown. For some strange reason we thought it better to rappel through the seracs rather than to walk under them. As a result we spent what felt like hours making many short rappels with our single rope through an alien landscape of precarious ice walls. Then it was down again: first down rubble slopes, then through a rain forest that grew thicker with every step. The last daylight faded as we crunched onto the gravel fan below the Great Couloir. Midnight found us at a greasy pizzeria in Jasper, and by daybreak we were back in Calgary: some thousand kilometres of driving, fifty horizontal ones of biking and hiking, three vertical ones of ascending, and seventy-two hours later.

A glimpse of the Emperor Face from the approach.

Peter Smolik (left) and Andre Slawinski set up camp below the Robson Glacier.

The Robson Glacier lies deep in shadow, while the rising sun lights up the Helmet and Mt. Robson.

In the Mousetrap...

... and above the Kain Face.

Peter Smolik (left) and Andre Slawinski on the summit of Mt. Robson.

Rappelling through the seracs above the Schwarz Ledges is probably not the best idea.

Andre Slawinski pushes his luck under one last serac.


I suppose all those kilometres were the reason why, for an entire decade, I never once turned west from the Icefields Parkway onto the Yellowhead Highway leading to Robson. There was just so much to do before you ever got to that turnoff: the roadside Chephren, the nearly roadside Andromeda and Kitchener, Alberta lurking on the far side of Woolley Shoulder… But for some reason this summer I found myself thinking about Robson again; maybe in a season without expeditions I simply hankered after a big mountain. Whatever the reason, Jay and I made plans for Infinite Patience on the Emperor Face in middle of September. On a cloudless afternoon we rounded a corner on the highway and suddenly there was Robson, filling the sky to the north. We had hoped to hit the ground running (or rolling, to be precise), but ran into an unexpected snag in the form of road construction. Damn it! Precious daylight slipped away while we lollygagged around the information centre, waiting for the road to the trailhead to reopen. We felt a distinct sense of urgency when we finally shouldered our packs and hopped on our bikes. In the end we made it to the river crossing below the Emperor Ridge with just enough daylight to see that the face looked disconcertingly bare, but not quite enough to avoid losing ourselves in the wet slide alder on the other shore. There was nothing for it but to pitch our tent in the middle of the gravel flats, wolf down a freeze dried meal, and go to sleep.

The following morning we were off well before dawn. With the face looking so dry we didn’t think the ice pitch though the first rock band would be in, so we started further right, groveling up scree and scrambling up wet gullies below the Emperor Ridge. After a few hours of this, the sun having risen in the meantime, we stopped to eat and gear up. Harnesses and crampons on, we rounded a corner, and within a few steps went from a gentle scree slope on the ridge to an exposed ice ledge on the face. Acutely aware of the sudden drop that had opened up below our boot soles, we shuffled across carefully. Before long an ice slope loomed up above us. Jon had mentioned perfect neve when he and Josh climbed the route in the spring, but we found ancient gray ice instead. No matter, it still went quickly, and soon we were running out of ice in the lower gully and traversing blocky limestone toward the upper one. Then it was back onto snow and ice, interrupted here and there by a rocky step. As it neared the ridgeline, the route swept up to just under vertical, with a strip of ice tucked into the back of a groove. And not far above, rather sooner than expected, we found ourselves blinking in bright afternoon sun on the ridge.

In spite of the early hour we could not resist taking a break in the sunshine, making soup and drying the sleeping bags still wet from morning dew. Eventually, with the sun sinking toward the smoke-filled horizon, we shouldered our packs and continued upward: scrambling up chimneys and over ledges, belaying a few pitches up ice gullies and rock walls, then coiling the rope again where the angle of the ridge eased. With light fading, we kicked a platform out of frozen dirt and pitched our tent a mere metre away from the abyss of the Emperor Face. But even on this exposed perch there was hardly any wind and we lounged in front of the tent, cooking, watching the last light go out in the west and the first stars come up. When at last we crawled into the cozy yellow confines of the tent, sleep came easily.

In the morning we traversed straight onto some downsloping rock that had us roping up in a typically awkward spot. Why is it that we never see these things coming? Fortunately after just a couple of ropelengths we were back onto snow and ice, and we picked up our pace as the rope went back into the pack. But before long it came out again, as the weird shapes of the infamous gargoyles began to appear along the crest. Mind you, there was not much in the way of rock or ice protection to attach the rope to, but the styrofoam snow made even nearly vertical walls feel secure. And the roar of a serac avalanche far below, sweeping across the glacier at the base of the north face, made us doubly glad to be high above the world on this crystalline morning. Overcoming a last snowy gendarme, the broad summit opened up before us just in time for lunch.

Mountain ranges upon mountain ranges stretched out in all directions as far as we could see. We sat in a sheltered scoop in the sun, ate, drank, and took it all in. Eventually, growing chilled, we started down. It had been ten years since I last came down the south face, and I’d forgotten how nasty and unpleasant it really was. A traverse below the ice cliffs of the Roof was but a taste of the ugly Schwarz Ledges to come. Narrow, snowy sidewalks ran in and out of steep chutes overhung by giant, shattered seracs. We shut our brains off, scrambled down into the maw and out the other side. Further down we watched as another serac vomited tons of ice across our intended path. Fortunately there was a saner way around this final obstacle, and before long we were finally out of harm’s way, lounging in the sun in front of the decrepit yet friendly hut.

We had sufficient daylight to continue, and could have hit the bars in Jasper for a Saturday night celebration, but why would we have rushed? We had the entire mountain to ourselves, a roof over our heads, and rat-chewed foamies to stretch out upon. We didn’t even bother setting an alarm, but slept until we’d had our fill. After a sadly modest breakfast we set off on the last stage of our journey: past the weird bolts peppering the fourth-class rubble below the hut, down through a forest steep enough to be fourth class were it not for the dense trees, and at long last onto our bikes: the saviours of our beat up feet for the last few kilometres of trail. The trail itself was crowded with the Sunday-stroll set, and we had to watch our speed around corners as we rolled down beside the emerald waters of the Robson River, carrying the great mountain at our backs grain by grain down to the Pacific. All the same, I’m sure it’ll still be there in a year – or ten.

Summary: The third ascent of Infinite Patience (V M5 5.8), Emperor Face of Mt. Robson, and the first without helicopter assistance and finishing up the Emperor Ridge, by J. Mills and Raphael Slawinski, September 21-22, 2012.

Thursday, September 20:
   5 pm: Start from the trailhead.
   9 pm: Camp in the riverbed below the Emperor Ridge.
   5 am: Leave the valley bottom.
   9 am: Traverse into Bubba's Couloir on Infinite Patience.
   4 pm: Hit the Emperor Ridge.
   7 pm: Stop to bivi.
   8 am: Leave the bivi.
   Noon: Summit.
   5 pm: Stop at the Ralph Forster Hut.
   9:30 am: Leave the hut.
   1 pm: Arrive back at the trailhead.   

J. Mills packs up while waiting for the road to reopen.

The rising sun lights up Whitehorn Mtn.

J. Mills scrambles through a rock band below the Emperor Ridge...

... and traverses onto the Emperor Face, with Whitehorn Mtn. behind.

The lower ice couloir on Infinite Patience.

The traverse between the lower and upper couloirs.

A sharp arete at the base of the lower couloir, with Berg Lake far below.

Jay slogs up steep snow in the upper couloir...

... and climbs an interesting but short chimney.

Raphael Slawinski tries on his blue-steel north-face look. Photo: J. Mills.

J. Mills brews up where Infinite Patience hits the Emperor Ridge...

... and follows a nearly melted-out ice couloir higher up on the ridge.

Evening sun on the upper section of the Emperor Ridge from our bivi site.

"Hmm, shall it be Kathmandu  Curry or Pad Thai?"

Evening light paints the Emperor Face gold while Berg Lake lies deep in shadow.

The following morning J. Mills frontpoints across the southwest face...

...and crosses over to the north face to avoid the gargoyles. 

Raphael Slawinski celebrates on the summit. Photo: J. Mills.

The obligatory summit shot, with the Manitoban-Canadian on the left and the Polish-Canadian on the right.

J. Mills shuts off his brain as he heads down toward the Schwarz Ledges.

One of several gullies to be crossed on the Schwarz Ledges.

One last sprint below the seracs awaits just before the hut. Photo: J. Mills.

J. Mills relaxes in front of the Ralph Forster Hut.

Sunset over Kinney Lake from the hut.


  1. I know it's a big climb and all that but I don't like the current trend of flying in to the start. Neither do I like the current trend of guided parties flying in to the Dome to do the Kain Face. Kudos to you guys for keeping it real.

  2. "They had many more obstacles to overcome than we." - Conrad Kain commenting on the pre-railway attempt by Reverend Kinney and Curly Phillips. Driving to the trailhead, flying into Berg Lake: it's all a matter of degrees. But flying to The Dome or the Robson-Helmet col, and skipping a whole bunch of technical terrain, seems to me to be taking it too far.


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